US-Turkey divide on Iraq’s al-Maliki

US-Turkey divide on Iraq’s al-Maliki

I recently wrote an op-ed for the Hürriyet Daily News suggesting that the recent U.S.-Turkish rapprochement mainly stems from an American understanding now that former president George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which had boosted the Shiites and Iran, could be offset by Washington’s support for a Sunni Awakening in the Arab Spring. This analysis remains in place. Turkey and the United States work in full harmony in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia. But the general U.S. position is on a case-by-case basis.

In this regard, U.S. units have largely left Iraq in light of a series of previous arrangements. And now, the United States believes that Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a sign of stability in the country originally invaded and now vacated by Washington. Under this view, with al-Maliki in power Iraq could remain together in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

Turkey holds exactly the opposite view. Turkish officials view al-Maliki as a strongly divisive Shiite leader, who presumably hates the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Turkey and al-Maliki fell apart mostly in the last parliamentary elections in Iraq. Then Ankara backed the Sunni-Shiite coalition led by Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister, a former Baathist, and a former favorite of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Eventually Allawi’s bloc came first in the elections, with only two deputies. But under later arrangements Allawi lost the prime ministry to the heavily supported Shiite al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki never forgot the Turkish dislike. During a visit to Washington earlier this month, he told the Wall Street Journal that Turkey’s involvement in Iraq’s domestic matters was unacceptable. “Turkey interferes by backing certain political figures and blocs. We have continuously objected to their previous ambassador’s involvement in local politics.”

Turkish officials retaliated by claiming to the Americans that he was Iran’s man and that al-Maliki’s course of events could break away Iraq.

The Turks continued by saying that the majority of Shiites led by al-Maliki were keen to prevent Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds from taking a role in Iraq’s politics.

The breaking point came as Tareq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s most senior Sunni politician and the closest one to Turkey, whose arrest was ordered by the Shiite government, fled to the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan. Al-Maliki was quick to request his earliest handover, accusing him of terrorism.

Al-Hashemi accused al-Maliki of opening sectarian divisions in the country.

Iraqi Kurds now seem to be siding with Turkey, which openly backs al-Hashemi. But they are less interested in Iraq’s future in the long term. They are more committed to an independence goal as long as they could gain Turkey’s approval in the future.

Max Boot, a major U.S. military expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Clashes between Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga were prevented only by the presence of U.S. troops. Now those peacekeepers are gone. Who will prevent a renewed flare-up of hostilities between Shiite and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds?”

“Now we will see whether Iraqis will govern them in a decent manner... But the early signs are worrying,” said analyst Thomas Friedman in the International Herald Tribune.

Turkey now is clearly working on a way to become a leader of the Middle East’s Sunnis. I don’t know if that will happen. But I suspect the Americans may understand that Ankara is right on al-Maliki.